We watch some heady stuff for Criterion Month. You know, films that make you feel stupid. Or at least make me feel stupid. What I love about Akira Kurosawa is that he feels like the workingman’s Criterion filmmaker. He makes beautiful films with profound statements and ideas but they are also very entertaining. Kurosawa is never boring. His films move quick (even his longer ones) with tight scripts, action, suspense, and a lot of people getting pissed off at other people. In most cases, one of those people is Toshiro Mifune. Kurosawa is one of the few filmmakers in the Criterion Collection that I will happily watch outside of Criterion Month and he’s got a lot of good films to choose from. Stray Dog is one of them.
Historically, Stray Dog is remembered most for two things; 1) It’s one of the earliest buddy cop films… like period and 2) It’s Kurosawa’s ode to Film Noir. In fact the inspiration for the film came from Jules Dassin’s American 1948 Film Noir The Naked City. But what was appealing to me about Stray Dog was the premise: “A newly-promoted homicide detective loses his pistol and has to track it down.”
The premise reminds me of an Italian neorealist film. If you’re not familiar, those are films set against poor or working class backdrops, filmed on location, with simple plots and non-professional actors. Stray Dog checks off some of the boxes. Except the plot does become more complex as it goes along and has some real A-list talent in the duo of Toshiro Mifune (as the officer who lost his gun) and Takashi Shimura as his veteran partner.
What makes Stray Dog so effective is how closely it follows the steps our lead character Murakami (Mifune) takes to track down his pistol. After he is pickpocketed he goes to the larceny department of his station, then to the mugshots because he caught a quick glimpse of the thief’s face. Building on that, he goes undercover only to find his gun keeps getting passed on, traded and sold, even used in several murders. So he goes from person to person, picking up clues, and following leads. At one point he finds out one thief likes baseball. So he goes to a game and sees what he can learn there. It’s a procedural at its most stripped down and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Often in movies with immersive locations you’ll hear people say “It’s like the city is a character.” This is true in Stray Dog but I’d even take it one step further and say “The weather is a character in Stray Dog.” The whole film is set during a brutal heatwave that seems to get worse and worse the further Murakami digs into the seamy underbelly of Tokyo. There’s even a 9 minute sequence with almost no dialogue where Murakami wanders through streets and alleys. The film takes on a blurry, dreamlike quality in this sequence. When Murakami finally tracks down his weapon the weather shifts from blazing heat to a torrential downpour. The weather adds so much to the mood of the film.
Stray Dog is a simple detective story but it’s the choices Kurosawa makes that elevate the film. The weather, the camera-movement, the editing, the rhythm and pace of the film, are all next level. Mifune is great but that kind of goes without saying. Mifune and Kurosawa made 16 films together for a reason. Stray Dog isn’t one of Kurosawa’s best. It might not even be his best crime film. That probably goes to Drunken Angel. But Stray Dog is a master auteur taking something simple and making it special. A workingman’s Criterion filmmaker. Not enough of those in the collection.
And you gotta love that hat.